My brief stopover in Vancouver quickly turned into a week and even after then it was hard to drag myself away from this cracker of a city. I was slowly slipping back into the comfortable bosom of normal life and as easy as it was to keep saying “just one more day” I knew it was time to get those pedals turning again.
Back in the saddle once more, it wasn’t long before I’d crossed into the USA and was blasting down the Pacific Coast towards another gem of a city, San Francisco. Teaming with cyclists each summer, the route down the coast is a well-trodden one and for good reason; it offers a tasty combination of incredible scenery, signposted routes and easy camping (with cyclist specific areas provided at most state parks). In the world of adventure cycle touring it doesn’t get much easier.
Some favorable offerings from the weather gods helped things further, with an almost clear run of blue skies allowing me to ‘cruise the 101’ in true Beach Boys fashion. The ‘almost’ relates to a few days where the coast was continuously enveloped by a thick blanket of fog. At times visibility was reduced to mere metres, lending an almost post-apocalyptic feel to the landscape. The guidebook didn’t help matters, taunting me with descriptions of elusive jaw-dropping coastline round every corner.
Fog permitting the coastal scenery was all it was hyped up to be, with large rock stacks and arch formations scattered off sandy beaches becoming a familiar sight and providing no end of alluring camp spots. Further south into Northern California and the star of the show was inland, the towering forests of redwoods. Cycling through and camping amongst these giants of nature was truly awe-inspiring; they are bloody massive! And of course, as if that wasn’t enough for your average American tourist, some enterprising chap has carved out one poor tree to make it into a ‘Drive-Thru’.
My perception of the American people has been constantly evolving. At first glance it can be easy to conclude that they fit their many stereotypes like a glove, especially if, like me, you spend a good proportion of your time frequenting ‘all-you-can-eat’ restaurants. Patriotism certainly runs strong and I have to admit the Team America theme song has flashed through my head on a number of occasions…’America, F%$$ Yeah!’. I can also vouch for a lack of geographical awareness among some, with my destination of South America being confused as Mexico more than once. It is however, an extremely diverse country, more so than any other I can think of, and for every person who fits the classic stereotype there’s one who completely defies it. The wilds of Alaska, the small communities along the coast and the cosmopolitan San Francisco are worlds apart from one another. Although tied together by a common nationality it simply does not seem possible to define in any meaningful way what it is to be an ‘American’, the diversity is just so extreme. One continuum however, is the kindness I’ve received all along the way; from the girl who frantically waved me down to hand me a cold beer, to the random passerby who, after taking one whiff of me, offered the use of his hotel room shower. I politely declined the later, but obviously took the beer!
Some of the best camp spots of the trip so far have been during this leg, with a mix of the state park sites (which at $5 are quite a bargain) and the occasional cheeky wild camp. Fortunately bears are no longer a concern, but, as I soon discovered, there is another troublesome creature lurking in the woods, the raccoon. I was woken up one night by one of these pesky fellows literally dragging my food pannier off into the bushes. Needless to say though being chased by a hairy bloke sporting a pair of boxers was enough for him to call it a day.
In contrast to all the great camp locations, this part of the trip has also featured my worst and, in hindsight, most foolish camp spot. Under the cover of darkness I pitched up on a small patch sandwiched between a skate park and a baseball pitch in the town of Eureka. Despite the enticing name this town felt like ‘meth-head’ central and seemed to be overrun with vagabonds roaming the streets. An evening spent using the free wi-fi in MacDonald’s felt like I was in a rehab center and I’ll admit this was the first night’s camping I’ve genuinely felt concerned since starting in Alaska.
Whilst on the road, through remarkable coincidence, I ran into not one but three other nutters also riding to Patagonia. My first encounter was with Mark and Nate, both hailing from Chicago and certified legends. They’d started out from Prudhoe Bay just ten days before me and with so much in common it made immediate sense to team up for the ride to San Francisco. Later on we picked up a fourth gang member, Lee, who’d started his trip in Canada. As much as I enjoy the solitude and independence of solo travel, it was great to have company again. If nothing else it was good have some help fielding the constant barrage of questions whenever we stopped; “You’re going WHERE?!, ”Why would ya wanna do that??!”. By now we’d all developed our own succinct responses to these routine queries, practically reciting them word-by-word on each occasion.
Despite the great company I have to admit I was feeling pretty burnt out towards San Francisco. When explaining this trip I often quote the title of Lance Armstrong’s work of fiction in that “it’s not about the bike”, rather the adventures, people and places along the way. However, cycling 1200 miles in a shade over two weeks without a day off meant things were inevitably fairly bike focused. The reducing daylight generally required riding from dawn until dusk and whilst the daily routine is satisfyingly simple it can grind you down after a while. A common misconception (myself included!) is that there’s masses of ‘free time’ on a bike trip, but in reality it can be surprisingly scarce and my visions of ploughing through countless novels haven’t quite been realised! Some of the days really were monsters, including a 100 miler along a rather undulating stretch of the stunning Highway 1. This effectively comprised of eight hours of hill reps, with an elevation profile resembling the read out of someone miserably failing a lie detector test. An upside of all this madness though is that I’m becoming bloody fit – an inevitable product of generally spending more time on a bike than a professional cyclist.
‘The Beast’ has taken all these miles in its stride, with no real mechanical issues to speak of apart from some fairly woeful tales of tyre blowouts. My spare tyre was called into action on the drive up to Whistler from Vancouver, when one on the bike exploded under the heat of the exhaust pipe when it was on the back of Jane and Ian’s jeep. Given that I was now out of the wilderness I didn’t bother replacing the spare, but when cycling through the redwoods the calming serenity was shattered by another seemingly spontaneous blowout. I’m putting this one down to the fact that I was probably running it at too high a pressure. This left me in the rather unfortunate position of having a tyre with a knackered bead (the bit that hooks round the rim of the wheel) basically rendering it useless. After a bit of head scratching I tried strapping the tyre to the rim with the universal fixer of everything, duck tape. Amazingly, whilst the tyre was noticeably bulging, it seemed to hold and despite a rather disconcerting wobble it got me over 100 miles to the next bike shop. Fortunately I didn’t have to negotiate any slippery hairpin descents, as I’m not sure duck tape offers much in the way of grip!
On Halloween our rag-tag, four-man convoy made our triumphant arrival in San Francisco. Rolling through the posh suburbs with cheesy music blasting from Mark’s portable speaker, we couldn’t have been any more out of place. We reached the Golden Gate Bridge just in time for sunset and then went our separate ways, each having our own short-term plans but agreeing to reunite for the ride into Mexico.
Having spent a couple of days or so exploring this incredible city, I’ve since swapped downtown chaos for the calm of Yosemite National Park, where I’m about to start a backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Fancying some time away from the bike I opted to take public transport for this side trip, but in hindsight it may have been easier simply to have cycled the couple of hundred extra miles! I could literally dedicate a whole blog post to this journey, but the headlines include: a broken down train, seven hours of waiting, borderline rioting, replacement buses with too few seats leaving the more relaxed among us sat by the track side in refugee fashion and generally laughing at the complete chaos unfolding in front of us! This icing on the cake was a promised replacement train that subsequently rolled straight by us with the conductor at the window simply shrugging. The stunned silence was eventually broken by someone piping up with “does anyone want to talk about what just happened?”. It epitomised the situation perfectly. All’s well that ends well though, as a man who’s diary of commitments is limited to ‘get to Mexico for December-ish’, I was happy to walk away with a free night in a hotel and a full refund!